The new crisis in Mali reminds me of the Taliban destroying priceless Buddhist statues. In case you didn’t see it, extremists in Mali burned an archive of historical records and old manuscripts.
Seydou Traoré, who has worked at the Ahmed Baba Institute since 2003, and fled shortly before the rebels arrived, said only a fraction of the manuscripts had been digitised. “They cover geography, history and religion. We had one in Turkish. We don’t know what it said.”
He said the manuscripts were important because they exploded the myth that “black Africa” had only an oral history. “You just need to look at the manuscripts to realise how wrong this is.”
Some of the most fascinating scrolls included an ancient history of west Africa, the Tarikh al-Soudan, letters of recommendation for the intrepid 19th-century German explorer Heinrich Barth, and a text dealing with erectile dysfunction.
Of course the loss of history is tragic. And we shouldn’t burn books. But beyond this is the preference to simplify another culture and place through colonial loss — in essence we should be enraged that human history is being destroyed. In my opinion this hinges on a universal humanist version of history — one where all the stories of the world are foundations for the great story of the west.
Although destructive and thoughtless, it seems as though the west is more concerned about the ideas of people of the region that were recorded four hundred years ago than those expressions of anger in 2013. This temporary colonial perspective would probably elicit awkward old school colonialist answers to global problems.